Pacific bleeding heart and ants: a beautiful relationship

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Dicentra formosa in bloom

Dicentra formosa (Pacific bleeding heart) with its feathery green foliage and heart-shaped flowers is a springtime favourite for many. It also has an interesting relationship with ants.
If you were to look very closely at the seeds of Dicentra formosa, you’d see a little fleshy white bit attached to the seed. It’s called an elaiosome — basically a little packet of fats and starches that’s an irresistible treat for ants.

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Dicentra formosa seeds with elaiosomes

The ants pack the seed (with elaiosome) to their colonies, where the tasty bits are gobbled up and the seeds – unharmed – are discarded in special chambers that ants have for trash (along with other organic waste).
It’s a win-win for the ants and the seeds (which get distributed far from the mother plant and are essentially planted in a nutrient-rich burrow).
There’s also evidence that suggests that the seeds may benefit further in getting an indirect cleaning from the ants while they’re eating the elaiosome. (Ant saliva is known to have antimicrobial properties.)
So the next time you see a lovely patch of Pacific bleeding heart, thank the ants.

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